The New Year's Eve Post on Cash has stimulated not only Comments on the issue itself but an Anonymous riff on the speculated demise of the federation system. Here are the best of these Comments and some observations in response:
National cash collection is a reflection of local cash collection. Local cash collection is a reflection of a message of urgency and strong campaign outreach. Strong campaigns are a reflection of clear purposes and priorities and good mechanics. So why are we suprised at the dwindling numbers when feel good volunteer opportunities for millenials are promoted over sustaining core agency services, when an amorphous agenda of "peoplehood" trumps the growing gaps between rich and poor in Israel, when we are more concerned about a 19 year old's free quickie Israel experience than his mom who has lost her job, and when our young professional is schooled in sales, web 2.0 and social network marketing techniques but is clueless on lay-professional partnerships?
Anonymous nails it. And, it's even worse. The demand for the individuality of Federations simply stole the larger than life underpinnings of a true national leadership and, I defy anyone to say that that national leadership was anything but strong and enormously valuable. People like Max Fisher, Bill Berman, Marvin Lender, Shoshana Cardin, Corky Goodman, Richard Wexler, Richie Pearlstone, Carole Solomon, Rani Garfinkle, Jane Sherman, Jon Kolker and so, so many more at UJA, CJF and UIA were pillars of strength in their home Federations and equally committed at the national and international level. It made ALL the difference. And yes, those of us who were their professional partners when the "lay/professional partnership" truly was just that, also owned a passion that did not have to be defined in a Strategic Plan. It was in us when we sought our jobs. National and even international Missions to the Soviet Union and then the FSU and, always, to Israel, were occasions which strengthened our understanding that we were part of something much bigger than ourselves. There wasn't any selfishness; there was an astounding amount of work, real work, done by the lay leaders and they sought very little kovod. My recollection of discussions with leadership through the 90s was that they all saw the continuum of leadership as critical. Something bad has happened to that since the creation of UJC. Maybe it's something today's national (JFNA) leaders ought to think about. They might even consider inviting some of the terrific folks mentioned above back around the table. But most of all, the Federations who insisted that a national organization without a mandate to lead be created, need to take a hard look at what they have wrought. If it isn't fixed it will all continue to deteriorate.
A veteran leader from the Midwest was fond of saying that the secret to his power was that he seldom took his gun out of its holster. Whereas an earlier generation of major donors used their influence to promote and at times enforce collective responsibility, a next generation (aging quickly I should add) use their leverage to promote their (and their foundation stafflings) more particular agendas.
enough of the chest thumping and self-congrats from these commenters about how great things were in the old days and how uber-effective yesterday's leadership was. quite simply, the gig was FAR easier. anybody who thinks that a few new personalities at the table will make a tangible difference in today's rough and tumble world of enormous charitable competition and ubiquitous, technological connectivity is deluding themselves.
the rules of the game have changed, everyone. still pining for the old-school campaigns and caucuses where checks flew in unsolicited as israel fought for her very existence? well, i hate to break it to you, but they're gone. think that "web 2.0 and social network marketing techniques" are mumbo jumbo and a waste of time? tell that to the nonprofits that are actually GROWING today.
of course there are a few bright spots as well as miniscule pockets of innovation in the system, but for the most part, the jewish federations of north america make last years GM look like google.and i assure you that i take no pleasure in offering this harsh judgement. i know how great the needs are. i support much of the agenda. once upon a time, i proudly raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the system. but sadly, i came to the conclusion that too many of the pros and volunteers were incompetent - well meaning, but incompetent - and many federation execs were worse; they regularly put their own interests ahead of the system's and were absolutely incapable of doing what it took to expand the reach of their organizations.
of course, things will only get worse. the system has basically driven off a demographic cliff. over the last 20 years, the national donor base has steadily become smaller and older - an ominous sign - and all (former) leaders who read (and write) this blog have watched it happen and, as a result, bear some of the responsibility. so, rather than prop up an antiquated, unexceptional, yet endlessly belligerent philanthropic system, i've chosen to allocate my jewish, charitable dollars elsewhere. some unsolicited words of warning to all who are the JFNA: you're not the only horse in town... and much of your competition makes you look positively ready for the glue factory.
Interesting stuff, most of the above at any rate. Some of these writers in their anonymity suggest ways of making a difference -- or at least trying to. The last writer merely writes off the system (after once upon a time "raising hundreds of thousands of dollars" -- how special) that he/she describes as an "...endlessly belligerent philanthropic system." (Whatever that means.) Let's try this: first JFNA must change and become relevant, not to itself and its small group of intrenal supporters but to the federations themselves and their donors. Then, with JFNA's assitance, the federations themselves must take a long, hard look at themselves and commit to implement change to make them more relevant or, if you believe Anonymous above, relevant at all.
One of the best and brightest in our federation world wrote me last week. This is, in pertinent part, what he had to say on this subject:
"...until key power brokers nationally and internationally understand this, we’ll continue to plod along until we close our doors. I know that you and I have had this discussion. Some months ago, Steve Windmueller suggested having a “national conversation” in a great article posted on the internet. That’s exactly what has to happen – we’re having those conversations with our top donors locally. Unless, individuals, Federations and JFNA accept that there is a problem with this system/organization/idea/concept that all of us have loved for dozens of years, there will be no solution. Defining the problem is three quarters of the challenge. We have not yet owned up that there is a problem and continue to accept the status quo. Our business model is broken."
Every reader of this Blog knows how much I agree. This is no time for Work Groups or Strategic Plans. It is past time to reboot and emerge with strength, unity and relevance. Is our leadership capable of this?